Info:Correction Date: August 15, 1996
A Cop on the Beat
Assaults on his girlfriend and a litany of other conduct violations got Fred Santos fired from the Phoenix police force. Why he's back in uniform, responding to domestic violence calls, is a mystery.
By Amy Silverman
On March 1, the Phoenix Police Department fired Officer Fred Santos. Police Chief Dennis Garrett had his reasons.
Over a two-year period, Santos had stalked, assaulted, threatened and harassed his girlfriend, Gina Arrieta. Ultimately, he was arrested by Mesa police for domestic violence and disorderly conduct.
Santos also had threatened Arrieta by displaying his department-issued Glock 9mm pistol.
He had used a police computer to gain access to information about Arrieta and her ex-husband, and had given the information to Arrieta.
Santos allowed Arrieta to drive his personal vehicle, although he knew she did not have a valid driver's license.
He failed to notify his supervisor in the wake of an incident in which he called the Mesa Police Department to intervene during a fight with Arrieta. Then he withheld information from the Phoenix Police Department during the course of its internal investigation into his conduct.
Any one of these infractions--documented in hundreds of pages of internal reports and interview transcripts compiled during a nine-month investigation, and obtained from the police department by New Times--should have resulted in disciplinary action. Together, they should have provided more than enough cause to get Santos booted off the force.
But Fred Santos fought the law, and--contrary to the musician's complaint--he won.
Today, Phoenix police officer Santos is back in uniform and back on the street, assigned to the Desert Horizon precinct in north Phoenix.
Anne O'Dell, a retired detective with the San Diego Police Department who now works as an international consultant on domestic violence, is troubled by cases like Fred Santos'.
But she's not surprised.
She says a few police departments have adopted detailed domestic violence policies, including guidelines for dealing with police officers who are batterers. However, most departments--including Phoenix--have no such written policy.
"Until it gets really serious--and even after it gets really serious--police departments do not generally look at criminal actions that occur within the context of intimate relationships as being any big thing," O'Dell says. "And they don't see the big picture of, 'Wait a minute, this is the same police officer we expect to send out in response to a domestic violence call and expect unbiased, professional conduct.'
". . . When someone is doing that kind of stuff in their personal life, you are not going to get unbiased professional conduct when they respond to domestic violence calls."
In 1995, Phoenix police responded to 65,361 calls involving domestic violence--more calls than the department received in any other crime category.
Something strange happened to Fred Santos on the way to the unemployment line: The Phoenix Civil Service Board determined that he had violated numerous rules of conduct, but it voted to reinstate him anyway.
It's impossible to report with certainty why the board did this. Santos is a public employee--paid with public dollars, issued a gun in the name of protecting the public--yet the Civil Service Board doesn't have to explain why Santos was reinstated.
However, enough information is available to conclude that although the Phoenix Police Department seemed to have ample cause to fire Santos, the board believed the department erred by dragging out its internal investigation of Santos for nine months--all the while leaving him on the street.
That decision--to let Santos continue his job in spite of his litany of conduct violations--is probably why he remains a cop today.
The Phoenix Police Department--which has been slammed in the past for hastily firing officers and denying them due process--considered Santos to be qualified for his job until the internal investigation showed otherwise. He was innocent until proved guilty.
But the Civil Service Board--five citizens appointed by the Phoenix City Council to review contested disciplinary actions against city employees--apparently agreed with the hearing officer in Santos' appeal.
The hearing officer, Janet Feltz, concluded that since Santos' superiors didn't consider him enough of a threat to suspend or reassign him while he was being investigated, they shouldn't fire him--even though many of the allegations against him were substantiated.
In June, the Civil Service Board ruled in a 4-1 decision that although Santos was indeed guilty of most of the serious code violations noted by the Phoenix Police Department, the punishment handed down was too harsh. The board accepted hearing officer Feltz's recommendation that Santos be returned to his job with an unpaid suspension of 120 hours, or three weeks.
Santos returned to the streets three months after he had been fired, fully vested and awarded nine weeks' back pay.
Attorney Mike Napier, who represents Santos on behalf of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, refuses to comment. Santos won't say whether he's received any counseling regarding domestic violence.
In a written statement, PLEA president Mike Petchel says, ". . . Officer Santos' misconduct was serious, but he has made an effort to get his life in order and remain away from Arrieta to the best of my knowledge."
The Civil Service Board is mum, as well. The board is subject to the state's Open Meetings Law, which means it can vote to go into executive session to receive advice from counsel or for other limited reasons. But buried in the city's personnel rules is a caveat that gives employees the option of having all but the scantest of details of their cases sealed from public view.
An employee may request a private hearing when appealing a disciplinary action. If the Civil Service Board approves the request, the board's deliberation over evidence and testimony is also conducted in secrecy.
That means a typical monthly meeting of the Civil Service Board is like a game of musical chairs. The board votes itself in and out of executive session every few minutes, repeatedly forcing members of the public out of the meeting room.
Rory Hays, who chairs the Civil Service Board, says she had good reasons for voting to reinstate Santos, but she won't say what those reasons are. She also suggests that a reading of the hearing officer's full report would mollify skeptics, but she refuses to share that report.
"I can't really discuss the facts upon which I, at least, personally made this decision. Is that good policy? I don't know," she says.
Public disclosure of the hearing officer's report was discussed generically at a July 25 board meeting, and Hays reiterated that, for the time being, such reports would remain private.
"I think our counsel makes some real good arguments," she tells New Times.
Of course, the substance of those arguments is also mystery, since they were made during a secret executive session of the Civil Service Board.
Fred Santos, 37, joined the Phoenix Police Department in 1991. He consistently received satisfactory job reviews, but his relationship with Gina Arrieta caused him problems early on.
In 1993, Santos told internal investigators that Arrieta had smoked marijuana in his presence. He was concerned that his exposure to the smoke would be reflected in a department-ordered drug test. It wasn't, but Santos received a written reprimand for "conduct unbecoming an officer."
According to police documents, during the 1993 investigation Santos insisted he was going to terminate his relationship with Arrieta.
Santos' difficulties with Arrieta notwithstanding, 1995 must have been a stressful year for him. He was one of four Phoenix officers found to have acted inappropriately in the January killing of Rudy Buchanan Jr. (Thirteen officers fired at Buchanan a total of 89 times; he was hit at least 30 times.) The Use of Force Review Board concluded that Santos fired his shotgun from an unsafe distance, 156 feet; he received supervisory counseling.
Later in the year, he was investigated for his role in a domestic violence call he and three other officers responded to in South Phoenix. (A city prosecutor complained about Santos' conduct after his testimony in court was insufficient to win a conviction. Although he had not mentioned it before, Santos testified that one of his fellow officers had struck the suspect. Department investigators concluded Santos was guilty of failing to notify his supervisor that he believed another officer had falsified a police report and perjured herself.)
And then there was Gina Arrieta. In March, Arrieta complained to the department that Santos had assaulted her on several occasions, had intimidated her by banging his service weapon on a car dashboard and ceiling, had stalked and harassed her, and had warned her to keep quiet about such incidents.
Police initiated another internal investigation. They interviewed Arrieta, her mother, and some of Arrieta's Pep Boys co-workers, who said Santos frequently visited and harassed her.
One Pep Boys employee, Kelley Smith, told an investigator, Sergeant Larry Lemons: ". . . she used to call him, I quote, 'psycho cop,' and she used to be real scared of him. I mean, there was times when he'd treat her real nice and there was other days where he would just turn around and just be real vicious towards her. . . ."
On March 27, 1995, Santos told investigators he and Arrieta had "finally broken up."
That wasn't true. In an interview conducted six months later, Santos admitted he and Arrieta saw each other daily. He did not admit that she had moved into his apartment, which she had.
In that interview, conducted September 25, investigators began to note discrepancies in Santos' statements:
"Officer Santos admitted several times during the internal interview that while involved in arguments with Ms. Arrieta he had pushed her, struck her with his fist causing bruising, and had scratched her arm with his fingernails causing bleeding. When initially interviewed by Sergeant Lemons and Lieutenant Campbell, Officer Santos denied ever striking or injuring Ms. Arrieta."
On December 3, Mesa police responded to a call from Santos which resulted in the arrest of both Arrieta and Santos for disorderly conduct and domestic violence. According to the Mesa police report, Santos tried to keep Arrieta from entering the apartment because he was angry about her drinking and staying out late. When he did let her in, she struck and broke a glass coffee table and--in an attempt to restrain her--Santos ripped her shirt.
The charges were dropped, but Santos' interview with his department's internal investigators reveals additional details. An investigator wrote, "His [Santos'] actions during the fight that ensued constituted assault, which entailed grabbing and wrapping his arms [around] Ms. Arrieta's upper torso, physically lifting her off the floor and bed, pulling her hair, wrestling Ms. Arrieta to the floor, and punching her thigh with his fist."
Further, "He [Santos] also admitted that other domestic disputes have occurred which have gone unreported to the police and to his immediate supervisor."
Perhaps the most troubling detail in the voluminous investigative materials raises yet another unanswered question: Did Fred Santos have a previous history of domestic violence?
Yes, according to his own admission, noted in a summary of an interview conducted April 7. The investigator writes, "During this entire interview, Santos was visibly upset. He moved around constantly in his chair, hung his head, and often held his head in his hands. He started crying near the end of the interview. He talked about losing his job as a helicopter pilot because his Commander didn't like him over a similar incident when he was set up. . . ."
The only insight into the Civil Service Board's decision in the Santos case is contained in the hearing officer's conclusions, which--unlike the full report and hearing transcript--are public.
Hearing officer Janet Feltz concludes that Santos was guilty of the charged indiscretions, but writes:
". . . [Santos] argues that [his] personal relationship problems had no impact on his ability to adequately perform his job as a police officer, as demonstrated by the fact that he continued to work on the street as a patrol officer for nine months after the City was first notified of the problems in his relationship with Arrieta. Further, Santos' evaluation for that period of time met the standards of the position. Appellant argues that if Santos was truly not qualified to be a police officer and exercised such poor judgment that he could not be trusted, he would not have been permitted to remain a patrol officer, assigned to an area of minimal supervision, during those nine months. . . ."
Feltz also cites a similar case, involving the firing and the board's eventual reinstatement of Phoenix Police Officer James Gibbs.
According to her conclusions in that case, Gibbs was fired in December 1993, after his arrest for domestic violence, assault, criminal damage and threats, as well as damaging property at a private residence, threatening to commit suicide, placing a firearm to his head and lying to his supervisor.
In 1994, Feltz recommended Gibbs' reinstatement, writing, "Gibbs' conduct may have been grounds for dismissal. However, the Department's failure to act for five months after the incident, and the fact that it permitted Gibbs to continue his street assignment for more than four months before making a decision indicates that it did not perceive Gibbs to be a threat. There was no explanation given for the delay in the Department's action. . . ."
Gibbs was reinstated to his position with a 120-hour suspension. He, too, received back pay. He's now assigned to the police department's drug enforcement bureau.
A department spokesman, Sergeant Mike Torres, is surprised when asked why Santos and Gibbs were not reassigned to desk jobs during the investigations into their possible misconduct--and why they were not assigned to desks upon returning to the department.
"Why would you put him [them] in a specialized position, where it's a reward?" he asks.
Phoenix Police Chief Dennis Garrett did not respond to New Times' request for an interview.
Torres says, "He [Garrett] asked that they [Santos and Gibbs] be terminated, which they were. That says it all. The decision to get their jobs back had nothing to do with him."
"Ultimately, the citizens are the ones that decide the course of action for city employees," Torres says. ". . . If they want him back, that's the bottom line."
Many people don't want to believe that a man with a badge could go home and hit his wife or girlfriend. In fact, domestic violence consultant Anne O'Dell believes cops can be brutally efficient abusers.
She explains, "They know the system. They never open up and waive their Miranda rights. They use violence in a kind of legalized way. When they cross the line, to them violence is still legitimized."
Further, she adds, "They're all armed. They know how to inflict injury and sometimes not leave any marks. They know how to use police-approved holds, and they do. I've worked with numerous cases, talked to numerous victims over the past six years and my belief is that batterers who are cops are the most dangerous batterers of all."
Charles Masino isn't familiar with the specifics of the Santos case, but as a retired Phoenix police detective and current chairman of the Governor's Commission on Violence Against Women, Masino is qualified to speak generally about domestic violence.
Masino spent six years conducting criminal investigations of Phoenix police officers charged with domestic violence. (In Santos' situation, because the incidents occurred outside city limits, the Mesa Police Department conducted the criminal investigation.)
Masino agrees that a cop who is a batterer may not recognize domestic violence as a crime when he's on the job, because he justifies it at home. That can be dangerous--even deadly.
"If there is a crime and there's probable cause, it could escalate after they [the police] leave and become a homicide or more serious physical injury," he says.
Both O'Dell and Masino say the public is just beginning to recognize the magnitude of domestic violence, and that it is necessary for police to take action, particularly because some victims are unwilling to press charges.
O'Dell--who has reviewed the department's dismissal notice and the hearing officer's conclusions and recommendations--believes mistakes were made at every turn in the case of Officer Fred Santos.
First, she says, "The police department never should have taken nine months to investigate this situation. Not only do they put themselves at risk of liability, they are allowing a police officer who knowingly did all of these things to continue working in a patrol capacity, which I think is not a good decision.
". . . They should have taken him out of the field and put him in some kind of light-duty capacity, where he wasn't going to be allowed to continue using the discretion--the enormous discretion--that police officers have in doing their day-to-day job."
And second, "I think that's [reinstating Santos] highly dangerous for the Civil Service Board to do. I think if something happens down the road that they have no one to blame but themselves. For them to believe that seductive theory that it's because of this particular girlfriend, that that's why he was in trouble and certainly now that he's out of the relationship it's not gonna happen, is really, really ignorant."
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Gina Arrieta could not be reached for comment. Santos refused to talk to New Times, other than to say that he's no longer involved with Arrieta.
That claim apparently swayed Civil Service Board hearing officer Janet Feltz, who concluded, "Appellant has made an effort to get his life in order and to remain away from Arrieta."
O'Dell insists Santos' involvement with Arrieta is a moot point.
"It's a typical myth that it's a relationship problem, that it's a dysfunctional relationship, whereas the truth of the matter is that violence lies in the heart and the choice of the batterer," she says. "And he will take that from relationship to relationship. So they're taking an enormous, enormous risk, returning him to duty.
The August 1 story "A Cop on the Beat" described a Phoenix Police Officer James Gibbs as having been fired from the force and then reinstated by the Phoenix Civil Service Board. The article stated that he now works for the drug enforcement bureau.